What a week this has been. With Sunday came the news that I have a sister I didn’t know existed. I spent the week trying to get to know her while I felt the pull of needing to study for the exams we had coming up on Friday. I needed to be completely focused on all the techniques we were supposed to have in our wheelhouse but all I wanted to do was get to know Mary and hear her story.
Well, I did both. Got to know her a little better, continued to discover I have a wonderful kinswoman in her, 💝studied hard and somehow made it through the week.
Tell me why a midterm exam in a cooking school had us all in a twist like our lives hung in the balance. You’d think we had to perform surgery for the first time given how tense and nervous everyone was. There were two parts. The first part was easy enough, herb and lettuce leaves recognition and naming two recipes where we’d used the herbs. We had to be able to assemble a “MagiMix” or a food processor, pour a glass of wine properly without spilling and lay a table, according to a menu we were given.
The second part was what was really terrifying. It was where we had to demonstrate our knowledge of the techniques. Everyone had to chop and sweat an onion properly and everyone had to make a paper-piping bag. Sounds easy enough, right? Then, we were all randomly selected to perform two other techniques. Anything from filleting a round fish, to boning a chicken, to making choux pastry, to something “simple” like segmenting an orange. And, we were on the clock. Only 40 minutes to complete all four things. Cooking here always makes me think of those shows like Iron Chef where contestants have just so much time to do something, because I always feel the heat, pardon the pun, of the clock. And, we had to make an order of work, describing what we’d do first, second, third and last.
When the teacher assigned to me came by to look at my order of work, I'd just written all four things down, quickly not intentionally putting them in order yet, I panicked and wanted to say, "Wait! That's a rough draft!" But, after she left, I looked at it and thought, "well, that is the order I'll do it all in." It's good to be lucky. ☘
I guess when you are in a regular school and take an exam, if you make a mistake, you can erase it. Even in a painting if I make a mistake, no problemo. But I don't even believe in mistakes in art anyway... If you over cook your onions, however, there’s no going back from that.
Still, I’m curious at the height of the tension in us all.
I’m happy to report, I think I did well. My two random techniques were to sauté mushrooms, don’t laugh, there’s a right way, and making mayonnaise. I didn’t burn my onions and my paper-piping bag was done correctly. All I got from my teacher was “lovely.”
As I was cleaning up and putting away all the food I’d made in the receptacles they had for that purpose, I had a lovely chat with Rachel Allen, Darina’s daughter-in-law and one of our presenters. Arden was taking her exam at the same time, making scones, and Rachel came over to me smiling with her clip board and said, “I’m minding Arden, so not to worry,” and incled her head forward, toward where Arden was cooking. Everyone here has a crush on Rachel, so I was delighted she came over to me to say hello. She asked me if Arden was my only child and how wonderful it is that we’re here doing this course together. She’s just so nice and it made my afternoon.
Once we were both out, it took about an hour for the tension to subside. Poor Miss Arden was so unhappy at having been given scones as one of her techniques. She’s now made them exactly three times. The first time, she forgot to use any raising agent and they were hard as doorstops. The second time, she made sure to add the heaping teaspoons of baking soda, as the recipe called for. That batch wound up being the scones that ate Ballymaloe, they were so enormous! Yesterday, she had enough dough that it required two ovens to cook them all and the ovens seemed to be cooking at different temps. So the tops of some were a little caramelized and the bottoms of others were a little too brown she felt. She was very frustrated and it took a minute to come around.
But, then, the sun came out and it turned into one of the most gorgeous afternoons I’ve ever experienced here. I think it was our collective relief that dispelled the clouds. That, and the three-day weekend we had before us.
Earlier in the week, I’d asked Arden for a date to celebrate our making to the halfway mark and finishing our exams by going to Ballymaloe House for dinner last night. So we had that to look forward to and dress up for and we had a grand time at the Big House.
We dined with one of our housemate’s fabulous family who is from Vienna Austria. Her brother, Peter is a wine merchant in London and he and I talked wine all evening. He’d order some fab bottle of something and offer me a taste. I didn’t resist. Though, at table, I did order a bottle of Condrieu for Arden and me from which I shared a sip for him to try.
It felt fabulously international to be gathered by a fire in an elegant candlelit room, laughing gaily, discussing wine regions and politics in a 200-year-old Irish country home with thoughtful, open-minded Viennese. Gustav Klimt and Sigmund Freud might even have been among us. It was that kind of crowd. Wouldn’t Steve Bannon hate us? #Globalists.
Dinner was incredible. On Fridays, they have their seafood buffet and it’s chock full of wonderful morsels from these cold waters, just ten minutes away. It doesn’t get much fresher than that. There were Ballycotton shrimp, clams, mussels, lobster, smoked fish of all sorts and Irish Flats, indigenous oysters from Galway. I looked at Arden and said, “Let’s try one. Want to?” She said yes, so we took two and headed to our table, girding our loins. Now, if we were in Dallas, there’d be cocktail sauce at hand, some Tabasco and a cracker. Not here. It’s all about the oyster, baby. We screwed up our courage and tossed them back and surprisingly, didn’t hate it. Not even a little.
I’ve wanted to learn to be a raw oyster lover for a long time. When I hear of people having Sunday brunches knocking back raw oysters and washing them down with Champagne, I always think it sounds like the height of decadence and long to be a part of that scene. I’ve now stuck my toe in the Irish water and look forward to cultivating a taste for these little gems. I’m told oysters from colder waters are preferable to those from warmer water, like in the Gulf of Mexico, for example. Also, these are tiny and I can remember my grandfather, who worshipped oysters, saying, “I wonder what happened to all the little oysters?” It seemed every time he had oysters, they were always large. As a kind of squeamish novice, I can appreciate a small bite.
I’ve had a wonderful day today. Everyone else went in to Cork to the jazz fest and I opted to stay behind, close to the fire, having some much-needed "me-time." I spent a significant part of the day writing to my newfound sister, filling her in about the people she comes from. I had the great pleasure to introduce her to oodles of cousins on Facebook today too. Everyone opened their hearts and welcomed her immediately. It’s hard to appreciate what connections like that mean, when you’ve spent your life wondering and searching for answers.
Arden and I are on the down hill side of this course now and suddenly, I can't believe we've been at this for six weeks already. We've learned so much but have been told, you ain't seen nothin' yet. It's going to get serious from here on out. Heaven help us! 😳